In the age of #MeToo, Baltimore's small performing arts groups grapple with sexual misconduct accusations

Accusations or revelations of past sexual misconduct by leaders of three small local arts groups have sent tremors through Baltimore's performing arts community.

The allegations have triggered ugly public squabbles that opened schisms between boards, casts and crews, and audiences. The controversies demonstrate how the burgeoning #MeToo movement has forced at-times confusing conversations about appropriate workplace behavior in Baltimore and across the nation.

And they show how some small nonprofits that lack the human resources infrastructure of larger groups can be particularly ill-equipped to resolve potentially volatile accusations.

The revelation that the actor cast as Scrooge was a registered sex offender led to the cancellation in December of a joint production of “A Christmas Carol” by the Fells Point Corner Theatre and the Collaborative Theatre Company, a show that typically generates significant revenues for troupes.

The Iron Crow Theatre suspended its staging of Terrence McNally’s “Corpus Christi” in late March amid allegations of sexual misconduct by its artistic director.

And allegations of sexual misconduct led to the departure of Ric Royer, one of the three founders of Le Mondo, the multimillion-dollar arts complex under construction in the Bromo Arts & Entertainment District.

Each case focused on a leader of the troupe. The accused men at Iron Crow and Le Mondo deny any sexual misconduct. No criminal complaints were filed, and law enforcement did not investigate.

The co-founder of Le Mondo, who was accused by several women of misconduct, has parted with the company. The actor and co-founder of the Collaborative Theatre, who was convicted of several charges 14 years ago for soliciting sex from a police detective posing as a minor, has left that company.

Claims of sexual misconduct have drawn new attention in the months since several women went public with accusations of sexual misconduct by studio head Harvey Weinstein, setting off an avalanche of similar accusations against powerful men.

“Changes have occurred in the court of public opinion,” said Mara Walker, chief operating officer of the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. “Since #MeToo, a lot of people are feeling empowered to report abuses that happen today as well as abuses that happened a long time ago.”

She noted that small arts groups — frequently all-volunteer organizations with no human resources departments, attorneys, or labor unions with grievance procedures — often face additional obstacles when confronted with allegations of misconduct.

“Organizations of all sizes have been caught off-guard by the #MeToo movement,” Walker said. “But small organizations can be at an extra disadvantage because they often lack the resources of larger groups. When a sexual-harassment accusation gets made at a smaller company, it can become a community-wide problem. When something happens in your neighborhood, it feels different than it does when it happens in New York City.”

Iron Crow Theatre

The most recent accusation became public in March, when Iron Crow Theatre postponed its production of “Corpus Christi” indefinitely amid allegations that CEO and artistic director Sean Elias had pinched and verbally harassed volunteer company member Eduard Van Osterom.

“I was setting up a backdrop, and Sean walked behind me, pinched my butt, and laughed and skipped off with the now infamous ‘Don’t tell, or I’ll deny it,’ ” Van Osterom, then Iron Crow’s event and outreach manager, wrote in a Facebook post and in an email to The Baltimore Sun. “I decided I was no longer safe under the AD/CEO of Iron Crow.”

Elias has denied any sexual misconduct. He declined to be interviewed for this article. When asked by email if he had ever physically or verbally harassed Van Osterom, Elias responded with a one-word message: “No.”

The theater’s board publicly announced in March that it had become aware of concerns “regarding unprofessional behavior at Iron Crow” and immediately launched a “thorough and impartial” investigation. The board said in a statement and in an email response to questions from The Baltimore Sun that the investigation was led by board members “with no personal or professional conflicts of interest” who were advised by legal counsel “with no ties to the company” and “included hours of testimony/transcript review.”

The Iron Crow board said it had concluded that “the specific allegations of sexual harassment by Mr. Van Osterom did not occur,” and it has “full confidence” in Elias.

But in a statement on Facebook posted March 31, 13 “Corpus Christi” cast members said they had decided to suspend the production. They said they would not “collectively comment on the Iron Crow controversy.” They said they “do not condone sexual harassment,” but would not “cast blame without knowing the facts.”

Van Osterom has since left Iron Crow. The circumstances of his departure are in dispute. The board wrote in an email to The Sun that he “voluntarily resigned” from the organization. Van Osterom told The Sun that his email account was deleted without warning after he complained about Elias.

“It was just clear to me that I was silently fired,” he said.

The fracas erupted on social media in early March. For several weeks, current and former company members engaged in bitter personal attacks. Iron Crow eventually sought the resignation of a volunteer staffer who insulted Van Osterom in posts on the volunteer’s personal Facebook account.

Now fans fear for the future of Iron Crow, which describes itself as Baltimore’s only queer theater.

“I know the heart and soul artists pour into their companies, and I have no desire to ‘burn it down,’ ” Bad Oracle blogger Annie Montone wrote. “I want to see Iron Crow take control and right the ship. ... Iron Crow: fix this, now, while you still can.”

Emotions remain raw. A “community dialogue” was scheduled last month to bring together Iron Crow leaders and other interested parties to talk through their concerns. But the session was canceled by Restorative Response Baltimore, the conflict resolution organization that organized it and was to have facilitated the discussion, fearing that it “could potentially be harmful, re-traumatizing, and unsafe for people.”

When Iron Crow announced the dialogue, the company also said it was “expanding its policies on sexual harassment and harassment through social media,” and had created a “formalized standard of professionalism.”

Iron Crow said it had also created a "community advisory board” to support the company “as it implements its revised and expanded policies on harassment and professionalism, ensuring that Iron Crow Theatre remains a safe place for all.”

The board is to be chaired by Ron Legler, president of the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center.

Lisa Brown Alexander, a human resources consultant who specializes in nonprofits, has not been involved in any of the Baltimore cases. Speaking generally, she said the biggest mistake organizations make is failing to respond quickly when accusations arise.

“A board of directors learns that there is an issue, and then they wring their hands for weeks on end,” said Alexander, president and CEO of Nonprofit HR in Washington and Chicago. “They talk about it, but no action is taken and the victim is left dangling. Usually, that’s the beginning of the end. I always tell my clients that once they become aware of a problem, they have five days to acknowledge the complaint and begin an investigation.”

If a board wants the investigation’s outcome to be accepted by the rank and file, she said, it must be perceived as unbiased. Ideally, it’s conducted by someone from outside the organization.

“It’s critical that there be an arm’s-length distance between the person doing the investigating, the accuser and the accused,” she said.

Staging a production is an intense experience, and collaboration is key. Shows can become worlds unto themselves and cut off from everyday life. Participants work long hours, often late into the night. Actors are pushed to make themselves vulnerable.

In such an atmosphere, Americans for the Arts’ Walker said, it’s not unusual for boundaries to get crossed.

“To accomplish anything, you have to work incredibly closely together,” she said. “You have to put your heart out there, and in those circumstances it can be difficult to tell the difference between behaviors that are appropriate and those that are inappropriate.”

‘A Christmas Carol’

Fells Point Corner Theatre and The Collaborative Theatre canceled their joint production of “A Christmas Carol” last December after learning that Steven Shriner, the actor who had been scheduled to play the lead role of Scrooge, had been convicted in New Jersey in 2004 of second-degree attempted sexual assault, luring or enticing a child and other violations.

Shriner, a founder of Collaborative and the organization’s former president, is on Maryland’s list of registered sex offenders. Prosecutors say he was arrested in 2003 after driving 60 miles to meet someone who identified himself online as a 14-year-old boy, but was in reality an investigator with the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice, court records show. Shriner was sentenced to six years in prison, court records show.

The cast and crew of “A Christmas Carol” voted initially to open as planned, according to Ann Turiano, interim president of Collaborative’s board. Turiano told The Sun that the troupes took into account that no children were cast in the production. A search of online court records by The Sun turned up no criminal charges against Shriner in Maryland.

Alexander wasn’t consulted in the case. She said she wasn’t surprised the troupes initially decided to continue their holiday production. Institutions often side instinctively with their leaders, especially if the organization’s head is perceived to be talented, charismatic or crucial to the bottom line.

“There’s often reluctance to deal with the person who’s writing checks to your organization,” she said, “or with a person who is powerful, highly esteemed or a source of funding. But the board is responsible for managing the company’s reputation and protecting its stakeholders. If you know about a problem and leave it unchecked, it can shut your company down.”

After rehearsals for “A Christmas Carol” began, the two troupes said in an online statement, rumors began circulating that protests were being organized that could disrupt the performance. An actor dropped out of the play, citing safety concerns. The theater companies decided to cancel the production the day before the show was to debut for a four-weekend run.

Shriner told The Sun that he believes “A Christmas Carol” should have been performed as scheduled, with him playing Scrooge.

“On dress rehearsal night, the board representatives from both companies met us at the theatre and told us that they were canceling the run,” Shriner wrote in an email. “The cast and crew wanted to go forward with the production and, in the event of protests, they wanted to bring the two parties together and turn it into a useful dialogue. …

“But the board told us that the decision had already been made. At that point, I was asked if I had anything to say. I said that I thought the decision to cancel without trying to come up with an alternative lacked courage.

“The things I love about theatre are the passion, courage and risk it takes to do it. I said, ‘If this is the cowardly way we are going to respond, I’ll take my script and go home.’ ”

He added that some troupe members had been aware of his 2004 conviction, but in the past had ignored it.

“For fifteen years, I have done everything that the law required me to do,” Shriner wrote. “I have specific rules I have to follow and I have done so. Previous to this one poor life choice, I was a good, kind and involved member of society. I am doing everything in my power to be that citizen again.”

Le Mondo

The high-profile arts incubator Le Mondo was thrown into turmoil over misconduct allegations last year.

Several women wrote statements against executive director Ric Royer to the organization’s board in August, according to Royer, board members and an attorney representing one of the women.

The women submitted the statements confidentially, with the understanding that they would not be shown to Royer. They have not been made public.

Four of the women have given copies of what they say were their statements to The Baltimore Sun.

Christine Ferrera, a co-founder of the Baltimore Arts Accountability Coalition, worked with the women. She confirmed that the allegations in the statements given to The Sun were communicated to the Le Mondo board.

The women have asked The Sun not to identify them. They said they feared retaliation.

An artist who said she worked closely with and had a romantic relationship with Royer said in her statement that on one occasion she told Royer repeatedly that she did not want to have sex, used their safe word and fell asleep, and then woke up to Royer having sex with her. She also said he cut her lines in theater productions and threatened to remove her from projects due to their personal disputes.

Another woman in the arts community who said she is a former girlfriend of Royer said in her statement that he broke into her studio twice through a window and later threatened physical violence to both himself and the person she dated after her relationship with Royer ended.

A third woman, an artist who said she is a former girlfriend of Royer, said in her statement that after their breakup Royer showed up at her home unannounced and continued calling her. The woman said that she felt motivated to provide a statement to the board after she said she witnessed Royer mistreating and harassing other women within the arts community.

Royer denies any accusations of sexual misconduct or other abuse.

"There was no abuse,” he wrote in an email to The Sun. “Not in the workplace, not in my personal life. These allegations were started by an ex-girlfriend who was upset about my infidelity and who was fighting to claim authorship of a project we had worked on together. ...

“Three instances of bad relationships do not equate to one instance of abuse. The claims range from totally ridiculous to selective remembering, they never had anything to do with my job, and they changed multiple times.”

Le Mondo is the complex being built at 406-12 N. Howard St. at an estimated cost of $4 million to $6 million with the aim of providing safe and affordable spaces for artists to live and work. It will also feature a black-box theater, a venue with a bar and a neighborhood cafe.

Royer resigned as the organization’s executive director in August. But he returned, briefly, when he was rehired by the board in September as a development consultant for a real estate group affiliated with Le Mondo.

“The Le Mondo board has unanimously approved continued provisional employment with its development company affiliate Howard St Incubator LLC,” the board said in a statement at the time. “We have established a set of expectations for this individual that predicates their ongoing relationship with our organization.”

The decision drew sharp criticism from some in the local arts community. Several aired their concerns on Le Mondo’s Facebook page.

Ann Tabor, a dancer and actor who lives in Mount Vernon, has donated money to Le Mondo. She is now critical of the way the board handled the allegations.

“I think the only thing that would redeem Le Mondo at this point would be a complete change of leadership,” Tabor said in a recent email to The Sun.

Board member Ted Rouse, who is helping to finance Le Mondo, said Royer’s experience launching projects similar to Le Mondo outside Baltimore made it difficult to sever ties.

“Of the three co-founders, he’s the one that had that experience, and had that kind of business sense,” Rouse said.

Rouse and other board members said the organization attempted to apply the principles of restorative justice, which seeks to promote healing by bringing together victims and offenders to talk face to face or through a mediator. But the approach fizzled when the alleged victims rejected Le Mondo’s mediation process.

Ferrera, of the Baltimore Arts Accountability Coalition, said the group agreed to participate in restorative justice and work with a mediator, but then learned that the mediator had been chosen by Royer.

“We didn't feel it was appropriate in this case,” Ferrera said. “We did agree to have a mediator present, but then she cc'ed Ric — she cc'ed him on a private thread that contained a lot of confidential information — and she also let us know that he was the one who originally contracted her, and that obviously wasn't appropriate.”

Board members Lydia Pettit and Gianna Rodriguez resigned. They told The Sun they were upset with the way the board handled the women’s allegations.

A $300,000 state grant to Le Mondo was endangered, according to the Downtown Partnership.

The Partnership administered the grant. Partnership spokesman Michael Evitts said Tabor contacted the partnership on Nov. 27* with concerns about Royer’s continued involvement in the Howard Street Incubator.

Evitts responded to Tabor in an email: “We do not condone sexual misconduct of any kind and, in fact, the terms of the pending State funds we awarded to the organization includes clauses that may require us to withdraw the funds.”

Three days later, on Nov. 30*, Le Mondo publicly announced it had fired Royer from Howard Street Incubator, for allegedly violating the terms of his employment.

“The termination of Ric Royer’s employment is effective immediately,” Evan Moritz and Candy J. Bales said in a statement. “Ric Royer is expressly prohibited from having any connection, in any capacity, with Le Mondo, ever again.”

Royer said Le Mondo made that decision to appease its critics, not because he had done anything wrong.

“For the record, I was not fired because of claims of abuse,” he wrote in his email. “Le Mondo initially unanimously voted to keep me on after hearing the details of the allegations. As with so many art organizations nowadays — I was later fired because of outside pressure placed on these entities, and their wish to avoid a PR mess. They are not making these decisions out of integrity or ethical conviction, they are making decisions out of fear."

Once the Downtown Partnership received assurances that Royer no longer worked for Le Mondo in any capacity, Evitts told The Sun, Le Mondo was again eligible to receive the grant.

Le Mondo is moving forward. The first of three buildings opened long enough last summer to host a few events, then closed for renovations. Fundraising continues, and Bales, Royer’s successor as executive director, said the organization plans to reopen in late summer or early fall.

Le Mondo recently redesigned its website and removed any previous mentions of Royer, his resignation and ultimate removal. The nonprofit also took down its Facebook page, where members of the arts community had criticized the group’s handling of the situation.

Resources for groups

Alexander and Walker said resources exist that can provide guidance for small arts groups. Nonprofits seeking legal advice can contact Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Trade organizations such as Theatre Communications Group and the League of American Orchestras have sponsored workshops and panel discussions on sexual harassment.

Locally, Hollaback Baltimore — a local chapter of an international nonprofit that works to end harassment in public spaces — works with groups to help them avoid and resolve problems.

The Chicago-based grassroots organization #NotInOurHouse released a 33-page document of tips in December aimed at helping small nonprofit theaters, in particular, handle harassment claims. The Chicago Theatre Standards, which can be downloaded from the organization’s website, contains such suggestions as designating a confidential liaison to whom potential problems can be reported.

“The good news is that because of #MeToo, there’s been a resurgence in education that can help groups figure out the appropriate actions to take,” Alexander said. “There’s a lot of tools out there today that didn’t exist before. We’re in a whole different climate now.”

*Clarification (Monday, Sept. 17): Ann Tabor contacted Downtown Partnership with her concerns over Ric Royer’s employment on Nov. 27. On Nov. 30, Le Mondo announced Royer had been fired. The previous version of the article did not specify when Tabor contacted the partnership.

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